Sharda Ugra is full of stories about the world of Indian sport – the kind that you don’t get to read about or hear every day. The kind that you'd know only if you've been on the field for a long time. The kind that engages and entertains you, and transports you to a time when sportsmen were just a phone call away.
On a Saturday afternoon, Sharda, who is a senior editor with Cricinfo and ESPN India, is at the Bangalore Press Club for an interactive session organised by the Network of Women in Media, India. She talks about her experiences, shares anecdotes and her views on the transformed landscape of sports journalism in India.
Sharda entered the world of sports journalism over two decades ago, when it used to be an all-boys club.
"I always make this joke that Tendulkar and I started off at the same time, which is true. He had his first test match and I got my first job in November 1989. He has retired, but, fortunately for me, I don't need to retire at all," she says.
As a humanities student in 1980s Bombay, Sharda pretty much had only four career options in front of her – a journalist, a teacher, an advertising professional or a librarian. Her love for sports, however, made it an easy choice.
"I loved sports. But I was a useless athlete," she laughs. "I played badminton, cricket and football, but I was very, very bad. But I loved reading about sports, watching sports, following sports. I can watch anything that is competitive and write about it. I don't think you can be a sports journalist if you are not a sports fan to start with or if you don't like sports."
What was it like to be a female reporter when there were no women around? That's one question Sharda often gets asked.
"The problem or the resentment was not from athletes or officials or people who were associated with the sport-part of it. It was the other journalists – not all, but some – who were around, the slightly older generation of men. They pretended like I was not there. I was so terrified of being the girl who asked the stupid question that it took me four-and-a-half years to ask my first question at a press conference," she says.
"The other thing is how you present yourself. You are going to cover an event and you are the only woman there. So you feel like you are carrying the entire burden of womanhood on your shoulders when you step into a press box. You feel like you will either ask a stupid question or behave stupidly or you'll be unprofessional. So you had to sort of make up for all those imagined responsibilities that you carried with you. I literally tried being as invisible as possible," she adds.
What mattered to her most was getting stories and she persistently worked towards this. As more and more women started entering the field, she often heard male colleagues complaining about how women would get interviews by "batting their eyelids" at cricketers.
Another major challenge for women journalists was locating a toilet when on the field.
"There are stadiums in the country that simply assume that women are not going to come to the match," Sharda says.
The Wankhede Stadium for instance, she tells the group, had a gent’s toilet near the press box, whereas women had to walk some distance to the club, "pretend" to be a member and then use the loo.
During a match in Indore, a "chivalrous" fielding team emptied their dressing room just so she could use the loo.
"If we had to go to the toilet, we had to ask someone. We almost felt embarrassed about asking someone to go to the toilet … As if it was a strange activity that only 'you' were doing. Like it completely upset the scheme of things," she says.
While she started her professional career with Mid-Day in 1989, she had begun dabbling with reporting in her college days.
In 1987, former Pakistan cricket team captain Imran Khan was in Bombay for a tournament. Sharda and her two friends managed to interview him, which made them "famous" in college.
“Those were the days,” she reminisces, “when players were approachable, and one could simply pick up the phone and request them for a meeting.”
What also helped them as newbies on the field was that they were not apprehensive.
Another time, batting legend Viv Richards was in the city.
"He agreed for an interview the next day at 2 pm. But my friend was like, 'Can you please make it 3 pm? We have a lecture till 2:30.’ So, he tells her, 'Better I tell you time than you tell me time'," she narrates, breaking into a laugh.
Press conferences used to be less formal and more “fun” back then, as conversations were spontaneous and off the cuff. She remembers hearing how a popular cricketer of the time cut his toe nails during a press meet. Saurav Ganguly was known for "launching rockets" – he would be saying something really drab one moment and, in the very next, would give a byte that would send reporters rushing to file copies.
"Now they have media managers and they all say the same thing in the same accent. 'I am gonna do this. I gotta do that'," Sharda says.
"But it helps to be articulate. If you are a bad captain, sometimes I feel being articulate helps you get out of it more often than it should. There is a bias definitely, particularly in cricket journalism, towards people who speak well," she adds.
In an illustrious and satisfying career spanning 28 years, during which she has covered a wide range of sports, there’s only one thing she feels guilty about.
"As a woman, I feel guilty that I did not write more on women's sports as I should have," she says.
Sports journalism in India has evolved to become more inclusive today, thanks to women like Sharda who stuck around even when the tide was against them.
"The new generation of women journalists, especially on TV, are completely brazen, and I admire them for that. You have to wear down people's notion of who you are, what you write, what you are about, by just being there. There are going to be more of us coming. We are not going away. You can be mean and nasty, but we are not going anywhere. We are going to come with our notebooks and recorders, and we are always going to be there," she says.